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This short drama of a fishing family being struck by tragedy takes place on the Aran Islands, the most barren and forlorn part of an otherwise green Ireland. The sea is both the livelihood and the death-bringer to this population, dependent on the fishing trade (small boats, called curraches, in rough seas). The men must go out despite the weather, and there are few shelters on the shoreline, which is mostly steep cliff-face. (The film "The Man of Aran" shows the play's setting very well.) The setting fits the Irish/Celtic mystical tone of the ghost-rider that signals the loss of yet another son, seen riding a white horse along the cliff's edge.
J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea takes place in a cottage on the remote Aran Islands. The islands are located off the western coast of Ireland, within sailing distance of the rugged region of Connemara and the closest major city, Galway. The Aran Islands are particularly important in Ireland, as they have long been considered to be a place where traditional Irish culture and the Irish language have been preserved. Synge visited the islands in order to study this culture in-depth, and he drew upon this experience heavily while writing his plays.
However, while the Aran Islands are a place of cultural significance, they have also been a place of poverty and loneliness. Far away from major metropolitan centers, the people living on the Aran Islands have historically scraped out a living in an often hostile landscape. We can see this hardship at work in the play, as the characters must survive by braving a treacherous ocean that has the potential to provide profit and monetary gain, but more often than not turns deadly and takes the lives of the Aran Island natives.
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